Shnek lives alone in a rented apartment in Epping, in Melbourne’s north, and has worked for decades in an eclectic range of jobs: gardener and maintenance worker, electronics technician for Ericsson, truck driver, storeman, fence builder and courier.
While Shnek has always wanted a stable, long-term job, he’s ended up working for a string of businesses that have gone bust.
“I’ve had bad luck,” he says, shaking his head.
In March, Shnek began receiving the federal government’s fortnightly $550 coronavirus supplement. It effectively doubled his JobSeeker unemployment benefits.
“It gave me enough to pay the rent and bills without sweating,” he says.
But the payment has progressively been scaled back, and Shnek now receives a regular $150 supplement, taking his total unemployment benefits to $715 a fortnight.
While housing and homelessness support service Launch Housing helped Shnek negotiate his private rental costs down to $155 a week, his landlord recently hiked it back to its pre-pandemic rate of $300.
With the coronavirus supplement set to expire at the end of March and no news on when he might secure public housing, Shnek knew he had to act fast to avoid homelessness.
In the next few weeks he will move into a $170-a-week room in a share house in Heidelberg West. The house is surrounded by factories and Shnek is hopeful he might find work in one of them.
Shnek is tall with short, silver hair and strong arms from decades of manual labour. He’s never felt this heavy before, physically and emotionally.
During his months of unemployment he has exhausted his savings. He sold his airconditioning unit and then his green Kawasaki motorbike.
“I loved it like my child,” he says.
“That was my only escape. I used to go riding on the weekends up in the mountains. I’d go out on the motorcycle and felt free.”
Photos of the bike remain on his computer and he displays his collection of helmets in his living room.
“They’ve been through my life with me,” he says.
This is the longest Shnek has been unemployed and the stress is taking a toll on his health.
“Just recently I had a bit of an attack around here,” he says, thumping his chest.
“I went and saw the doctor and found out I have high blood pressure, so I am on medication for the rest of my life.”
To make matters worse, Shnek fractured his knee last month after slipping on a pool of water on his floor. He spent a week in hospital but is now on the mend, walking and eager to work.
Social policy expert Tony Nicholson says the long-term joblessness that many face is crushing.
“The longer someone is unemployed, the more their financial resources are eroded, their mental and their physical health diminish, as do their chances of getting work,” says Nicholson, who once ran the Brotherhood of St Laurence.
Before losing his job, Shnek was earning almost $1000 a week. But now, luxuries such as porterhouse steaks at the local pub have been replaced with cans of baked beans.
His Netflix subscription has been cancelled, his unpaid utility bills are mounting and his internet connection has been cut off.
This means Shnek is unable to apply for jobs from home and lodges applications via his employment agency, Matchworks. He has to apply for 12 jobs per month to qualify for JobSeeker.
Being an older worker in a competitive jobs market has its pros and cons, his Matchworks consultant Yasmine Taha says.
“A lot of people want older workers because of the experience they come with,” she explains.
“But then we get employers that want people under a certain age because the jobs are physically demanding.”
Before the pandemic, the largest group of people receiving unemployment benefits were between 55 years old and retirement age.
While this shifted during the pandemic, with 25- to 34-year-olds now making up the bulk of those receiving JobSeeker benefits, older workers are concerned the federal government’s JobMaker scheme – which gives hiring credits of up to $200 a week to businesses that employ workers under the age of 35 – will make it harder to secure work.
But Taha is hopeful Shnek will find work soon.
“He has a really good work history behind him and lots of experience.”
Shnek says a big part of his identity is tied up with work.
“Single and no family, all alone in this world, work was somehow life for me,” he says.
“It kept my mind, soul and body in check. When I do get a job, people are happy. I put in effort. I’m responsible.”
He’s been looking for work in store rooms, as a gardener and courier, and thought he’d found the perfect job building caravans.
“I sent in my resume,” he says.
“They said, ‘You are exactly what we are looking for but you are too old, it is too physical.’ ”
Shnek thought he’d struck gold again late last year when his employment agency lined up a trial at a fruit packing business.
“I was on time every day, working really hard, they couldn’t fault me,” he says.
“But they went for someone who was younger.”
TOMORROW: the successful small business owner, savaged by the pandemic
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Clay Lucas is a senior reporter for The Age. Clay has worked at The Age since 2005, covering urban affairs, transport, state politics, local government and workplace relations for The Age and Sunday Age.
Senior Reporter at The Age